By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
Hank Richards has been a part of public education in Hoke County for over half a century, but an era is coming to an end as he steps down following a 16-year run on the Board of Education.
Richards, 78, left his mark on the students he taught, up-and-coming teachers he mentored and the school system as a whole. The school board celebrated his contributions with a special reception last week, as Richards attended his last board meeting. He chose not to run for reelection this year after serving four consecutive terms in the office.
“Tonight we are honoring a very special man. A man who has been a servant leader in education for 53 years,” Jodie Bryant, school public relations director said in remarks. “Mr. Richards began in the classroom as a teacher, has served as an administrator and most recently has spent the last 16 years leading Hoke County Schools to positive change and outstanding achievements as a Hoke County Board of Education member. Tonight, Mr. Richards, we say thank you.”
Dr. Richard Smith, one of Richards’ oldest friends, provided a video message celebrating some of his many accomplishments over the years. The two attended Pfeiffer University together, where Richards played soccer and was a part of the Falcons’ 1961 winning season. Richards graduated with a degree in mathematics, and later went on to earn a master’s degree in public school administration from East Carolina University.
Richards started his career as a teacher at East Montgomery High School in 1966, under the leadership of then-principal Raz Autry. When Autry moved to Hoke County to take up a job as Hoke High principal, he asked the Richards family to come with him.
“Mr. Autry saw special and unusual skills that Hank had,” Smith said. “…Mr. Autry knew that when he gave Hank a project or a chore, Hank would do it quickly and he would do it very well. Hank was loyal, industrious and ambitious, and Mr. Autry saw these things.”
Richards moved to Raeford in 1967 with his wife Linda and their two children, John and Ann. The family ended up staying, and Richards worked with the school system for 36 years. His wife Linda Richards also worked in education, as an AG coordinator and later as testing and accountability coordinator.
Richards taught math, and after earning his master’s degree, became a principal. He was later selected to become principal of the county’s first year-round school at Upchurch Elementary.
Richards came on the Board of Education for the first time in 2004 and was part of the team that brought superintendent Dr. Freddie Williamson to Hoke County.
During his time as a board member, the school system saw graduation rates increase from below 50 percent to 87 percent in 2020. He was part of many initiatives to support students and teachers, including building new schools.
Richards’ fellow school board members and school administrators praised him for his support of education and educators. School board chairwoman Irish Pickett first met Richards at J.W. Turlington, where Richards an assistant principal.
“I became very close to Hank, and he was always there if any teachers were down,” she said. “…Hank was always trustworthy, he had that humble spirit that you could talk with him about any problems you may have had concerning education. He willingly gave his attention and listened to us.”
“I wish you much happiness in your retirement. You have done so many outstanding things and made so many outstanding contributions to the Hoke County school system your focus has always been on our children, and you have done an excellent job,” she said.
Rosa McAllister-McRae, who came on the board at the same time as Richards, recalled hearing good things about him from teacher assistants before she even met him. He and his wife held Christmas parties for the TAs at their home, and were well known to many in the community, she said.
“Hank, you’re really going to be missed,” McAllister-McRae said.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Shannon Register recalled how she often saw Richards taking the time to be involved with the school system’s inner workings.
“You were there, I would always see you laughing and joking and early in the mornings going to Dr. Williamson’s office, and I said to myself, that’s a great leader on the school board, that’s someone who’s in touch not only with the day to day people in the school system but he’s in touch with what’s going on with policies and procedures, and I appreciate everything you’ve done,” she said.
Richards thanked the board and administrators, and said he’s looking forward to spending time with his family. He offered remarks reflecting on the many new programs, initiatives and improvements made to the school system over the last years.
“I am very proud of the progress Hoke County Schools have made under Dr. Williamson’s leadership, and am proud to have played just a very, very small part in this unprecedented growth. My time on the Board of Education has been rewarding, and enjoyable. Thank you all,” he said.
Richards’ family attended in person and by Facetime, and enjoyed a small reception in the Hoke High media center.